I'm good at abstracting things. It's part of my job description as a theoretical astrophysicist.
This weekend, however, I spent much of my time restraining that impulse. I didn't want to hide in the comfort of a million-year perspective or the view from 30,000 light-years. It felt important to keep my feet firmly on this world to honor the sharp, unbidden suffering of the innocent in Paris and Beirut after terrorist attacks late last week.
But now, as we struggle to make meaning in the horror's wake, there is a need for the long view. There is so much at stake in these events and our response to them. And the long view, I believe, requires our deepest understandings of three principles that should define any society worth defending: reason, faith and love.
Reason: We in the United States live a legacy that seeks to understand the natural world, of which we are part, through the lens of reason. And reason in this legacy is bound to science. The tradition represented by science began with Hellenistic Greeks 2,500 years ago, was strengthened by Arabic empires 1,000 years ago and flowered in the European renaissance 500 years ago. Eventually, the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment where the direct, empirical investigation of nature, and the order found there, was imagined to be a model for building better relations among human beings.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident," says our Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal." A few years later, in Paris, a similar idea gave birth to the national motto: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."
The principles of democracy that emerged from this period were founded on the idea, and the ideal, of reason. It was based on the principle that no dogma or enforced canon can replace free, open inquiry into the nature of the world (or the stirrings of our own hearts). From the strength of this emphasis on reason, these democracies also made freedom of religion a hallmark of their organization. For it would be a crime against the human spirit to enforce any particular set of religious beliefs. This included having no such beliefs at all.
We who live in societies like France and the United States are beneficiaries of that long evolution. We are the lucky ones benefiting from the women and men who struggled to create a society holding reason in such high regard (even as they acknowledged other domains of human experience). Without a doubt, history makes it clear how imperfect these societies could be as exemplified by the suffering imposed by their colonial expansions. But their highest achievements have come with their ability to self-correct. As in the process of science, old ideas and old prejudices have been abandoned in the search for greater liberty, greater equality and greater well being. The process is ongoing and we can all be thankful, and proud, to be part of that lineage.
Faith: A civil society founded on open, reasoned discourse and a tolerance for dissent will always be at risk. Human beings carry the weight of evolutionary baggage that makes it difficult for us to stand resilient in the face of fear, aggression and hatred. This includes our own impulses to those emotions. The events of this weekend require a strong response, but it will be all too easy for the response to be infected by panic. That is exactly what terrorists are after — and why we call them terrorists in the first place. So, we must have faith in our own ability, as inheritors of these societies, to respond without sacrificing the qualities making them so worthwhile.
Thus, faith becomes a covenant with our past and our future. Recognizing the struggles of the past — from the American Revolution to the Civil Rights battles of Martin Luther King Jr. — we must understand what has been given to us and what we must pass forward. Whatever our perspective on sacredness, we can recognize our sacred duty to the extension and protection of these ideals.
Love: Finally, and absolutely, we must recognize the power of love as our guide in this strange process of world-building. What the events of Paris demonstrate, once again, is how easy it can be for ignorance and anger to dehumanize others. The tradition we inherited saw reason in the process of science as a way to honor the world. It was a means to love the world for a grand beauty and sublime order always present to awaken our staggered hearts. That tradition also hoped to build a kind of society where people would be free to love how they wished both personally and communally through religion or its absence. The establishment of such a civil society was, in its way, a deep expression of love for life, for humanity and for our promise. Its preservation through our words and deeds must be such an expression as well.
That is why we grieve. We mourn in the face of this weekend's events not just for those lost but because it reminds us of how much we all stand to lose. We cannot let the issue become just about "safety." History shows us clearly that the ability to organize human culture through reason, through faith and through love is no small thing. It has always been hard won.
But we can feel grace to know it at all. And we should understand exactly what is required to maintain its best and most compassionate virtues.
Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4